From its establishment in the 1850s, North Omaha was a hotbed of Presbyterianism. In the 50 years after the community started, there were at least a half-dozen congregations started. After local church officials started a local seminary in the 1890s, they decided to build a massive new facility. Choosing a parcel in the Kountze Place neighborhood at Florence Boulevard and Emmet Street, the constructed a massive brick school on a 5-acre plot. This is a history of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary located at 3033 North 21st Street in the Kountze Place neighborhood of North Omaha from from 1902 to 1943.
In the late 1880s, the state of Nebraska was bursting with production. New farms established during the previous twenty years became lush with crops, towns and villages were growing across the state, and the main cities were booming with success. Omaha was advertised as “The Gateway to the West”, drawing settlers from the East with promises of lush growing farms and endless prosperity.
In the first three decades of the city’s growth, Omaha became well-churched. Despite its reputation for being a “wide open” city where anything goes, the city was actually a work-a-week place where you’d put in your five days, party Saturday night, go to church on Sunday, and then start over on Monday. When they went to church, they tithed well and helped many institutions grow throughout their city.
The Presbyterians were one of the congregations that grew along with Omaha. Arriving soon after the city’s founders, the first Presbyterian church in Omaha was opened in 1856. Over the next 25 years, more than 100 Presbyterian churches were founded in towns and cities across Nebraska. Their buildings became institutions for the faithful, for their communities and for the culture of the state. However, educating enough pastors to lead these flocks was becoming a challenge.
Filling a Need
In 1891, Nebraska’s Presbyterian leaders felt it was time to take action. That February, a group formed the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Omaha. Knowing surrounding the surrounding states of Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and other states needed ministers, they were confident of success.
That same year, Dr. George L. Miller, a pioneer businessman and land speculator in Omaha, donated 25 acres from his Seymour Park estate to the Seminary for the construction of a new campus. Located five miles from downtown Omaha, the denomination didn’t have funds to build their campus yet, so they never used his land.
Starting in September 1891, classes were originally held at Second Presbyterian Church at North 24th and Nicholas Streets in North Omaha. In 1894, the Seminary leased the Canfield House at 9th and Harney in downtown Omaha. That lasted for two years, until 1896 when donors back East purchased the former Cozzen’s Hotel in downtown Omaha and donated it for use as the Seminary’s home. The Seminary met there for the next five years, with an average of 25 to 30 students starting annually. In 1899, the Seminary graduated eight ministers; the same year, 24 new students began.
Graduation took three years of studying after students completed eight months of classes each year. Admission required students to be church members, college graduates, or to have the approval of local church leaders in their home area. Students also had to complete an examination to enter the school. There were no fees of any kind for these students. They studied all parts of theology, including mission work, with six professors.
Growing into North Omaha
As the only Presbyterian seminary between Chicago and San Francisco, the institution kept growing. The Seminary’s growth led the Seminary to buy land in North Omaha’s popular Kountze Place neighborhood in 1901. In the years after the popular Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898, Kountze Place filled in quickly. Lots that were difficult to sell before the Expo were snatched up quickly by homebuilders and new buyers. Omaha’s Presbyterian Theological Seminary was one of those customers.
The Seminary bought two blocks in the fashionable Kountze Place neighborhood along Florence Boulevard, North 21st, Emmet and Spencer Streets. A year later, the a three story Gothic Revival building was finished. Complete with four stories, it had classrooms, offices, a library, a chapel, a dining room, janitor’s quarters, and 50 dormitory rooms for students. A bell tower stood in the center of the building. It opened for classes in 1902.
Located in the posh Kountze Place neighborhood, the Seminary was near Omaha University, the Evangelical Covenant Hospital, and along the Florence Boulevard, which was called “Omaha’s Prettiest Mile” through the 1950s. There were streetcar lines on North 24th, North 30th, and North 16th Streets.
The Vanderburgh House
In the late 1890s, Charles E. Vanderburgh of Minneapolis bequeathed an inheritance to the Seminary. By 1905, the Seminary built the Vanderburgh House, a fine home for the president of the Seminary, and maintained it as part of the facilities. It later became a residence for seminary faculty.
The Seminary was influential in a number of ways. In 1909, the University of Omaha was established a few blocks north of the Seminary and most of the teachers were recruited from Seminary faculty. Three of the University’s first four presidents were ordained Presbyterian ministers. In the first decade of the century, the Presbyterians also opened a hospital on Wirt Street, also in the Kountze Place neighborhood.
By the 1910s, the Seminary had a special department to teach Bohemian (Slovakian) ministerial candidates. Led by Rev. Jaroslav Dobias, these students participated in chapel activities, prayer meetings and conferences with other students. Otherwise, they learned as a small group on their own.
The faculty for the college year 1917-1918 included:
- Rev. Albert B. Marshall, D.D., president and professor of homiletics and pastoral theology
- Rev. Joseph L. Lamp, Ph.D., D.D., professor emeritus of Hebrew, Old Testament literature and exegesis
- Rev. Frank H. Riggley, Ph.D., professor of Hebrew, Old Testament literature and exegesis
- Rev. Daniel E. Jenkins, Ph.D., D.D., dean and professor of diction and polemic theology
- Rev. Charles A. Mitchell, Ph.D., D.D., professor of New Testament literature and exegesis
- Rev. Charles Herron, D.D., professor of ecclesiastical history and missions
Special lectures are given in 1917-18 by:
- Professor J. M. Coleman of Bloomington, Indiana, on studies in Christian socialism
- Rev. Henry C. Mabie, D.D., of Boston, on the significance of the cross and foreign missions
- Rev. W. S. Marquis, D.D., of Chicago, on the Presbyterian United Movement
The Seminary was said to be a monument to the efforts of Matthew Lowrie, who served as a professor as well as the president of the Seminary. During his years, attendance increased from nine students to twenty six, with diplomas granted to 125 students.
Closing the Seminary
During its lifespan from 1891 to 1943, more than 1,000 graduates served in the Midwest, other states and around the world. However, despite its consistent popularity, the Seminary struggled financially since its beginning. Omaha’s Presbyterian Theological Seminary simply wasn’t able to sustain. In 1943, the general assembly of the U.S. Presbyterian Church voted to close the seminary after it failed to meet the minimum accreditation standards of the American Association of Theological Schools.
Grace University was founded in North Omaha in the former Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and stayed there for a year in 1943, when it was known as the Grace Bible Institute. After Grace University moved from the building in 1943, the federal government started leasing the building. They converted it into 27 apartments for government workers in the World War II effort. In 1951, the building was sold to a private management company which also owned the Garden Homes Apartments which were built on the former seminary lawn.
The seminary’s governing board continued to exist for several decades after its closure, and today operates as the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation. They became committed to raising funds to support theology students to attend seminary in schools around the world.
In November 1979, there was a fire that destroyed the building, which was then called the Mark IV Apartments and was owned by the Omaha Housing Authority as low-income housing. They had renovated it a year earlier. The Omaha World-Herald reported the fire was an arson, and the building was demolished within a month.
Coincidentally, the Garden Homes Apartments along Florence Boulevard, which were built as public housing projects, had been vacated two years before. Developing a plan to promote private ownership of the apartments as town homes, they sought to rehabilitate them. However, with a large, 75 year old building behind the apartments, the value of the rehabilitation might have been compromised.
A convenient arson’s fire, a demolished landmark and a lot that’s been empty for almost 40 years… That’s what happened to the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary building. It still sits on Omaha’s conscience.
- Official Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary website
- “New Presbyterian Seminary in Omaha” by the Omaha Bee in 1903
- Jfeck, M.E. (1979) Eighty Years of Service: A History of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Omaha, Nebraska, 1891-1971.
- Taylor, H.L. and Parsons, J.R. (1899) Professional Education in the United States. University of the State of New York. p. 108.
- Morton, J.S. and Watkins, A. (1918) History of Nebraska from the Earliest Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi Region. p 503-504.
- Shumway, G.L. (1918) History of Western Nebraska and Its People. p 745-746.
- (1904) “Minutes of the final General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of North America”. United Presbyterian Church of North America.